Data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts

When prospective students want to know how much money they’ll make if they major in a particular field at Montgomery College, it goes to great lengths to give them an answer.

The Maryland community college used a private company to painstakingly cross-check 22,000 graduates’ names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other identifying information against professional licensing records from state agencies, online career sites such as LinkedIn and CareerBuilder, and other sources to get as close as it could to a true idea of future earnings.

That’s about as accurately as any college can tell you the likelihood of whether its alumni get jobs when they graduate — something surveys show incoming freshmen consider the single most important reason to get a degree.

Most institutions don’t make anywhere near that great of an effort. The job-placement rates they give prospective students are instead based on unscientific surveys of alumni. Who are the likeliest to answer? Those who have good jobs, experts in this field say, which can dramatically improve the results. But universities seldom disclose that’s where those impressive-looking numbers come from.

Data sources

At a time of alternative facts, much of the information students get when choosing colleges — which they’ll be doing soon, as acceptance letters show up in their mailboxes — is sometimes inaccurate, almost never independently corroborated and often intended to put the best face on the universities’ performance with carefully chosen wording.

This includes not only the important questions of how many graduates get jobs in their fields and how much they’ll make with a degree in a given major, but whether their credits will transfer, how students do on graduate school admission tests and even how much an education will ultimately cost.

“It’s a scandal. There’s no other word for it,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, who leads an effort called College Measures to report postgraduate earnings of colleges and universities using state government employment data without the involvement of the schools themselves.

“At one time one could argue it was hard to get these numbers and you did the alumni surveys and if they worked in your favor, you published them,” Schneider said. “There are so many other ways to get these numbers now.”

This excerpt comes from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is reprinted with permission.

Rather than having more of an incentive to improve the accuracy of the information they provide consumers, however, colleges and universities may soon have less of one.

The Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders, arguing that regulation puts a burden on universities and colleges that contributes to increasing costs for students, say they want to roll back controversial Obama-era attempts at greater transparency. That job would be assumed by accrediting agencies, which critics complain are made up of university and college insiders who evaluate each other’s programs.

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About the Author

Jon Marcus / The Hechinger Report

is a higher education editor at The Hechinger Report.